March 16, 2012

John Carter (2012)

In February 1912, the pulp magazine "The All-Story" began the serialization of what would be one of the most influential novels in the history of science fiction: Edgar Rice Burrough's "A Princess of Mars". With the title "Under the Moons of Mars", the magazine began publishing the chapters of this story that mixed elements from the Western and fantasy genres, making it an early work of the planetary romance subgenre. The story became enormously popular and would be finally published in book form in 1917 as "A Princess of Mars". Since its publishing, countless works have been inspired by Burrough's legendary martian adventures, an influence that extends well beyond the realms of science fiction literature as it has touched music, science, comics, and of course, cinema. From the "Buck Rogers" serials to "Star Wars" and "Avatar", Burrough's hero John Carter has been an indirect yet constant presence in film since the beginning. Which is perhaps why when he finally arrives in his own film adventure, 100 years after the novel's publishing date, the result feels a bit outdated.

Titled simply as "John Carter", the movie begins with the arrival of Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) to the house of his uncle, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who has just passed away under mysterious circumstances. Edgar begins to read Carter's journal trying to find an explanation for his death. The journal begins with Carter as an ex-Confederate captain who is now looking for gold in Arizona. Carter is found by Colonel Powell (Bryan Cranston), who wants Carter to join his army. Carter escapes and finds himself in a cave, where after strange events he ends up transported to Mars by a strange medallion. In Mars, Carter finds himself stronger and faster thanks to the planet's low gravity. However, he is captured by a tribe of martian creatures named Tharks. While living with the Tharks, Carter witness a battle between aircrafts piloted by humans, and when a woman (Lynn Collins) falls from one of them during the fight, Carter saves her. She is Dejah Thoris, a martian princess from one of the two warring nations of Red Martians. Carter finds himself again in the middle of a war.

Adapted by director Andrew Stanton himself along Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, "John Carter" remains relatively faithful to the core and spirit of Burroughts' classic; though of course, some elements haven been somewhat updated (keep in mind the novel is 100 years old). The best and most obvious is the fact that the Princess of Mars herself, Dejah Thoris of Helium, is no longer a damsel in peril whose only purpose is to be rescued by a dashing John Carter. She is now an intelligent woman, a skilled fighter and brilliant scientist who not only can put a fight, but also doesn't hesitate to manipulate John for her own agenda. It's quite an interesting and refreshing development for the character. However, unfortunately not everything in this adaptation of "A Princess of Mars" is that good, as the screenplay is plagued with problems, like for example, its episodic tone, in which the characters seem to just go randomly from one peril to another. Something that works nice in adventure novels, but that doesn't translate so seamlessly to film.

The result of this is a disjointed narrative, in which director Andrew Stanton conceives several set pieces of great quality, but that doesn't really work along with enough coherence. Certainly the work of cinematographer Daniel Mindel captures the desert landscape with great beauty and overall director Andrew Stanton's vision of Mars is awe-inspiring (not to mention that the visual effects are impressive); however, while several individual scenes may be remarkable, in "John Carter" the sum of its parts is much less than inspiring. While visually breathtaking, Stanton's polished "John Carter" suffers also from an inability to capture the sense of wonder and naiveté that the novel, as if Stanton had denied the film from its pulp magazine origins, treating it instead as highbrow literature and forgetting that "A Princess of Mars" is first and foremost, a fun story. On a lesser note, it also doesn't help the taming down of the novel's violence and sensuality inherent in Burroughs' tale to please the family oriented Disney.

The cast is for the most part of great quality, with the unfortunate exception of Taylor Kitsch, who plays John Carter himself. Kitsch certainly looks the hero part, but his performance is considerably inferior to those around him that despite being the protagonist he is often overshadowed. The revelation of the film is certainly Lynn Collins, who truly takes advantage of her character's development to display her talents. As written above, the Princess of Mars is now a complex character, one that's truly torn between the love for her people and her wish for independence. Collins doesn't limit herself to look beautiful, she commands the screen and delivers a performance that truly deserved a better film. Samantha Morton voices Sola, a Thark whose shunned by her tribe after found helping Carter. It may say a lot about Kitsch' performance when Morton with her voice alone makes for a more believable character. Mark Strong plays the villain, Matai Shang, ruler of Zodonga determined to marry the Princess of Helium to finally conquer the nation.

As written above, while there are many elements to praise in "John Carter" there are perhaps more than, if not entirely disappointing, they are at least unsatisfying. The already mentioned episodic narrative of the film is perhaps its greatest problem, though it also hurts the fact that while some characters are well developed, others are quite poorly done. In fact, the real villains of the film are left in the greatest of ambiguities. Certainly, a certain degree of ambiguity is often welcomed in a character, but in "John Carter", it's excessive, to the point of being just unexplained. This all may sound bad, but to make things worse, the real enemy of Stanton's "John Carter" is not even anything in the film per se, but the fact that 100 years after its initial publishing, the adventures of John Carter of Mars don't really look fresh anymore. Given that anything from "Buck Rogers" to "Avatar" has been touched by Burroughs' novel, Andrew Stanton's rendition of it can't help but feel ironically derivative.

This all may sound as if Andrew Stanton's "John Carter" was a bad film, but it's not. In "John Carter", Stanton goes to great lengths to create an epic adventure that could properly pay tribute to the books he enjoyed as a kid. Unfortunately, his noble attempt fails as his loyalty to the literary source couldn't translate well into a proper cinematic narrative. It's certainly an entertaining film, no doubt about it, but it's far from being the classic tale of science fiction that the original novel meant for literature. To summarize, "John Carter" is not a bad film, it's perhaps simply a disappointing one. The proper translation of the adventures of John Carter of Mars is still yet to come.


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